The Old Capital Tavern, located on Benton Drive in Sauk Rapids, MN attempts to bring class and swagger to an otherwise pedestrian dining landscape. While it definitely has some outstanding strong points, it suffer from some fundamental weaknesses which undermine a truly enjoyable dining experience. I’ll break down their strengths and weaknesses, as I see them, from top to bottom.
The Old Capital has some serious bar machismo. It’s whiskey selection is a sparkling jewel in pile of locally quarried St Cloud Gray granite, boasting one of central Minnesota’s widest assortment of whiskey varieties under one roof. Their selection of tapped brews is diverse enough to keep a micro-brew aficionado’s palette sated. If bourbon, scotch, or beer are not your thing(or you simply detest the natural George Thorogood connection), then I am sure that they can certainly mix you up one heck of a tasty foo-foo drink too. The Old Capital Tavern is definitely not lacking in the bar side of the business.
Give them credit for turning an under used main street styled retail storefront into a warm and inviting place to eat and drink. Wood and contemporary tile and iron work certainly give Old Capital Tavern an upscale look and feel. A staircase in the back of the main floor dining area ascends to a small six table mezzanine level that overlooks the whole of the building. This is the ideal place to eat in my book if only because you get a close up look at the classy tin tiled ceiling and a birds-eye of the traffic below.
Real honest specials are what I look for. Just knocking a couple bucks off a regular menu item every Monday night does not a special make. The special on the night we ate there was locally caught battered Minnesota walleye served on a pretzel hoagie bun with Gorgonzola(?) cheese and salad greens with battered french fries and we also ordered the Cuban sans the pickled giardiniera veggies for the kids because they did not have ANY kids menu items.
The overall food quality was a little underwhelming but I know I was expecting too much. The walleye and bun were very greasy(The battered fries were the least greasy item at the table). I would imagine the Cuban would have been much better with the pickled giardiniera veggies so I won’t fault them for that. There just wasn’t any pizzazz to either meal. The portions were decent sized so definitely come hungry. Just remember to ask for another napkin unless you like sloppy fingers.
If I was to knock anything seriously from the Old Capital Tavern experience, it would have to be on the service side of things. Upon walking into the building, the first thing you notice is there is no waiting area, host/hostess station, or even a sign that reads “Please Wait to Be Seated”. We almost started to wander aimlessly to an open table until a server walking by, caught a glimpse of us in her periphery, and said, “The host will be there to seat you momentarily.” He was busy delivering food.
A superior restaurant has a steady captain at the helm to direct the wait staff, and, from the get-go, it appeared service was more random than orderly. We were the first people on the waiting list for a table so we had to carve out our own waiting area near the restroom doors. Luckily we found some unused chairs stacked under the stair case that we could pull out and sit on. We waited 20 minutes for a table while there were two sets of three tables pulled together with a “reserved” placard on them. Setting a reserved table is not a bad thing except that we were there for an hour and 20 minutes and those tables stayed open almost until we left. If you consider this was about 30% of their total seating area left dormant during the high dining time, then you know someone was dropping the ball. The long waits continued after being seated.
Our server was not well versed on the menu which definitely points to a need for more training from management. It’s not necessarily the server’s fault if they are not given the opportunity to know and experience the menu enough to be our trusted “expert” on what to order.
As far a price verses value is concerned, the price tag for two meals, two beer, and four Shirley Temples plus tip clocked in at over $50. Given the comparative prices of other restaurants of the same expected quality of experience in the area, the Old Capital Tavern was a little on the high side but not outrageous. Premium items cost a premium. You can’t expect to get premium without spending more on the customer side. That is why there is a Burger King across the street.
A complete dining experience is like a ballet. There are musicians, dancers, and stage hands working together in a well maintained venue to provide a well rounded experience for the audience. If the dancers don’t dance or the musicians are playing out of tune, then the experience is broken. The Old Capital Tavern is a great bar, but has a little work to do in order to be a great dining experience as well.
Now, go out and experience it for yourself. Good eating!
This review was based on a single, unannounced dining experience. The intent is not to “burn down” any restaurant for their shortcomings but to point out their strong suits and areas needing improvement, and provide readers with a balanced review of an establishment before they dine there. Though this is the first restaurant review I have posted on this site, I have been reviewing restaurants for nearly 20 years in several print and internet publications.